autumn in the Engadin.

I love shoulder season in the mountains.

Autumn is incredibly beautiful, but for a lot of alpine resorts, it is the slow time of year. Business owners take a break before the winter tourism rush begins. Kids are back in school, so the summer vacationers are long gone. Maybe it rains a lot. In many senses it’s an in-between.

And yet: the mountains are still there. The days where it doesn’t rain can bring the most glorious blue skies. The plants start turning pretty colors, mostly reds and yellows. The highest peaks start accumulating snow. The weather is cooler, and as a person who suffers greatly in even moderate heat, that sure brings a smile to my face. It allows me to play outside for longer.

Fall is a great time for the budget traveler, because it’s not high season (except if you’re headed to leaf-peeping land….) and rates are reduced. Last year I had a great getaway to the Austrian Alps and stayed in a hotel I would never be able to afford in the winter season. I had the elaborate sauna suite all to myself one rainy afternoon.

This year, we headed to the Engadin valley in southeastern Switzerland.

I haven’t spent a lot of time in the Upper Engadin. Cross-country skiers are probably most familiar with it as the location for the Engadin Skimarathon, which I’ve done just once despite being in Switzerland for several winters. We also had a nice ski weekend in Zuoz at the end of this winter. The Lower Engadin is one of my very favorite places, full of small villages with Romantsch writing on them, surrounded by big mountains: so quiet and peaceful. But I really had only been to the Upper Engadin once in summer, and it was a day of frustration while I was mentally processing some work-related problems.

It being shoulder season, we found a great AirBnB in St. Moritz, which again, is more posh that I would usually choose; nearby Samedan, Celerina, or Pontresina are more affordable.

The day before we left, I ran into my colleague Chris, a group leader in my research institute, on the train on the way to work. He had just returned from Val Roseg, a valley in the Engadin where he and another colleague, Amael, study biodiversity and ecosystem function. (You can find out about their research on this valley – with a big glacier at the top! – here, and watch a video they made about it here.) Chris was raving not just about a cool scientific result they had uncovered, but how beautiful it was.

“We’re going there this weekend!” I said excitedly.

We discussed a little, and when I said we were staying in St. Moritz, Chris looked at me like I had lost my mind. But, shoulder season!

Anyway, I arrived on Friday evening and picked up some locally-made mushroom pasta, wild mushrooms, bacon, and alp cheese, and whipped up a dinner as the alpenglow faded. I had big plans for the weekend: part of the reason we had come was that as part of my marathon training, I had two big runs on the schedule. 30 km on Saturday, and 20 km on Sunday, each with some elevation. It seemed a bit intimidating, and I doubted I would get out the door for Sunday’s effort if I was just doing it in my backyard. Hence, I picked some spectacular scenery to get motivated.

But where to go? There are so many trails, valleys, mountains, ridges, bowls… too much to explore in a single weekend. I pored over the Alps Insight trail running site looking at routes, and then pored some more over online topo maps looking at more routes.

On Saturday, we woke up, made breakfast, and then ran over to Pontresina, a rolling six-kilometer stretch along the lake and through pine forests. The trail was cushy under my feet and I marveled, “wouldn’t it be great to be able to run on trails like this every day?”

After going through Pontresina, we hit the big hills, climbing about 700 meters in five kilometers. I didn’t even try to run – I knew what we still had ahead, and just kept to a steady hiking grind.

But then we were above treeline near Alp Languard, and everything was spectacular. We were looking more or less straight across the valley into Val Roseg, where my colleagues had been doing fieldwork just a few days prior. The glacier hung, shimmering white, on the mountains in the back. Looking to the other side, we were surrounded by the alpine meadow playground we would inhabit for the next few hours.

Finally above treeline!

We climbed along a small ridge called Paradis – fitting. It was more gradual and a bit of a rest after all the steep climbing. We passed a small hut before descending some hard-won meters into a gorgeous bowl just below Lej (Lake) Languard. For much of the climb we hadn’t seen other hikers, but here people converged on this small alpine lake perched on the side of the mountains. I couldn’t capture its turquoise blue color, but believe me, it was special.

We descended the trail you can see snaking along the left to reach a wide bowl, before climbing back up to Lej Languard. This part of the trail is a runner’s dream.

The route was like a series of step: up to the lake, pause. Up a headwall to another plateau with tiny lakes, pause. We finally hit a traversing trail that cut below some big cliffs near the tops of the mountains. I ran off an extra kilometer or so to a pass, Fuorcla Pischa, just to see what was on the other side. It was a huge, rocky, open bowl with several more lakes, and in this direction, not a ski lift to be seen. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but it was the wrong direction.

Instead, we traversed back to the northwest, finally on gradual terrain through the scree, and spectacular view ahead of us. After a while we hit the spur up to the top of Piz Languard, which we ignored – the route had 1500 meters of climbing already, and I didn’t feel the need to add a few hundred more. We dropped down a bit before joining the “Steinbock-weg”, and a hard truth. I had looked forward to this section of the run because it was gradual, high-altitude traversing – the hard work of climbing was done, I was tired, and I expected to be able to cruise. But the Steinbock-weg was basically navigating boulderfields. I had to take care and go slower than expected. The last thing I wanted was to reinsure my ankle. That was okay, but not what I had pictured in my mind’s eye.

The last major point on our route was Chamanna Segantini, a hut where we could have stopped for something to eat and drink. But instead we descended a fun trail and than ran on beautiful, easy dirt paths around the side of the mountain a few kilometers, before taking another steep drop down all the way back to Pontresina.

30 k and more than 4 1/2 hours, and I had one workout done for the weekend. I spent the afternoon lying on the couch. It was great.

For day two, I knew I couldn’t handle so much climbing again, so I reluctantly left the Alps Insight website behind and picked an easier route. On Sunday morning I took the bus west and up the valley past a series of lakes toward Maloja. It was such an incredibly beautiful morning, it almost broke my heart to think that soon I will have to leave this country and find a job somewhere else.

I started by run by going along the south shore of the Sils lake; the path over big rocks and under the trees reminded me of running on a lake shore in New England.

But after a few kilometers I turned uphill, the only big-is climb of the day taking me over a headwall and into the Val Fedoz valley. Luckily, the climb was along a dirt road, so I didn’t have to think too much about where to put my feet – I was mentally tired from the previous day. I just tried to keep my heart rate from going too high, and savored the view out over the lake of Sils.

The view was stunning, and the valley nearly empty. The singletrack was faint and in places I lost its thread, and would have to pause to find it again. The stream meandered through the valley bottom until I got to one steep drop, where it had carved its way through with a waterfall. There, as I was climbing up through the boulders on one side, I met two hunters packing out their kill. After finally identifying that French was our only language of common currency, we discussed how beautiful it was, and that winter would come soon.

At the top of the waterfall, I climbed on top of a huge rock, stopped my watch, and ate a snack. The glacier at the end of the valley – there’s one in every valley here, it seems – beckoned, but I didn’t have the time, or extra kilometers, to explore further on the ever-fainter trail. Instead, I turned around and headed back down the valley on the other side of the stream.

Eventually I dropped down into Sils, where I caught a bus back.

Back to the St. Moritz train station, then back to Zurich, then back to home, and then, the next day, back to work.

My dissertation is due in a month now, and I have been working like crazy to get it done. Every day I feel completely mentally exhausted. Maybe hiking and running 50 k in two days doesn’t sound relaxing, but it was: relative to mental work, physical work is not so taxing.

Taking in the color and the sun, the mountain air and the mountains, was the best way I could possibly have spent a weekend, and I was thrilled to finally get to the Upper Engadin and explore with shoes instead of skis.

There were seemingly infinite valleys and mountains to explore, and I’d love to get back one day. Two friends are there right now, and they have been ensconced for a week or so, having a different incredible adventure every day. I’m jealous, but it’s not my time for that. Hopefully, in the future I’ll have more chances, because the mountains are there waiting.

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Seven More Routes on my Swiss Hiking/Trail Running Guide

I haven’t been blogging this summer, and for that I’m sorry. It has been busy, but when hasn’t it been?

Anyway, maybe I didn’t write at the time, but you can still take advantage of all the adventures I’ve been having. I added seven new routes to my Swiss Hiking & Trail Running Guide, based on the favorite spots I went this year so far. I still have a few long runs planned for the fall, so the guide could see one more update before I leave the country after defending my PhD this winter.

Click here for the guide.

The new routes:

Schwyzer Hohenweg from Brunni to Einsiedeln:

Innerthal to Ziegelbrucke over Schwarzenegg and Scheidegg:

Maderanertal Höhenweg:

Glattgrat on the way from Klewenalp to Urnersee:

Glattalpsee, from Bisisthal to Braunwald:

Glaubenberg to Glaubenbielen and into the Marienthal (pic by Annie Chalifour):

Trans Swiss Trail from Lugano to Morcote (pic by Steve Towler):

Bye for now, Holmenkollen.

A few weeks ago I headed to Oslo for the last* World Cup biathlon races of the season. I had some serious flip-flopping about whether to go or not: FasterSkier didn’t cover the trip financially, but I wanted to go see the races, I wanted to get away from PhD work for a few days, I wanted to go ski in the Nordmarka, I wanted to have one last hurrah. But it was expensive! Norway always is, especially last-minute. After lots of soul-searching and budget-considering, I bought a plane ticket, got accredited for the races, and arranged an AirBnB.

As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right call. In mid March the days are already starting to get longer in Scandinavia. I arrived in the late afternoon and went for a jog in the evening light, skidding around on icy paths and sidewalks.

Then I made dinner in the absolutely perfect apartment we had rented. I had worked on some manuscript revisions on my flight, so I sent those off. I felt like leaving work early on a Thursday hadn’t made me much less productive. As a reward, I pulled up the extremely extensive trail map of the forests around Oslo (the marka) and got ready to head off skiing the next morning.

It turned out to be the perfect trip. The skiing was the best I’ve ever had in Oslo in all of my visits there – I was remembering a few years before when I went skiing with my Dartmouth friends Hannah and Knut. Knut had been living in Oslo for a few years at that point, and he picked out a loop for us in the marka. But it was so slushy and warm that we were dodging dirt and rocks, ice sheets above streams of snowmelt the whole way.

Quite a contrast. This year, it was quite cold overnight (and in the mornings!), but getting balmy by midday, true spring skiing but with a phenomenal base of snow. On my last ski, I was passed by a guy decked out in University of Denver gear. He saw that I was wearing an old Dartmouth Ski Team jacket and stopped to chat. I gushed about how beautiful the skiing was.

“I grew up in Oslo, and this is the best winter we have had in 15 years!” he exclaimed.

It was truly great. That first ski that I went on, I meandered for 35 kilometers, over hills (a lot of them: nearly 1000 meters of climbing on the day, Strava told me, explaining why I felt way more worn out than 35 k would suggest…), across lakes, through the woods, and past huts serving hot chocolate and waffles (I didn’t stop).

I could not have been happier. I was glowing.

“Why aren’t you looking for a postdoc here?” People kept asking, seeing just how happy I was and as I raved on and on about how you could ski for 100 km or far farther than that, if you wanted to, without ever doubling back. And all this, accessible from the metro line!

It was a good question, but also highlighted why I was there. At this time next year, I will be done with my PhD, and I don’t know where I will be but hopefully I will be starting a postdoc. The chances are pretty high that I will be back in North America. Oslo won’t be just a quick hop across Europe like it is from my current home in Zurich. I won’t be able to make a last-minute decision to fly over and watch the World Cup. Probably, I won’t be going to any World Cups at all.

So I enjoyed watching the races. The weather couldn’t have been better – instead of the fog that sometimes characterizes the Oslo fjord, it was spectacularly sunny every day. I got sunburned, and for one of the first times ever while reporting at a race, my hands didn’t even get cold operating the voice recorder app on my phone. The races almost didn’t seem long enough: standing out on the side of the trail, I could have just stayed there basking in the sun and the atmosphere for hours. When the racers were heading for the finish line and I had to get back to interview them, it was only grudgingly that I headed in that direction. In a way there didn’t even need to be a race. I would have sat outside anyway.

I enjoyed the culture, jogging through the Vigeland Park sculpture garden and visiting the phenomenal Fram Museum with Susan. Steve and I lit a fire in the wood stove in our AirBnB and cooked salmon for dinner, feeling cozy.

And I enjoyed the skiing.

On Sunday, before the last races of the weekend, I headed off on a ski – as always. Because I look more or less like I know how to ski, I can usually cruise around the race trails during training if I have my media accreditation and nobody looks at it too closely. So I headed out of the stadium, soaking in the atmosphere but trying not to attract any attention, and then off onto the bigger loop – the trails used in the cross-country World Cup but too long for biathlon, the ones that wouldn’t deliver skiers back to the shooting range fast enough.

I remembered what it was like there in 2011, my very first reporting trip with FasterSkier. It was cross-country World Championships, and we got a bib that allowed us to ski around the race course before the 50 k. I think at least two, if not three, of us took turns with that bib so we could each head out on the trails.

That morning, I skied two laps (which was maybe 8 k or maybe 13 k? I’m not sure…) and the 100,000+ people were already out there ready to cheer, having been camping in the woods around the trails and already drinking and grilling sausages. I had been to Norway before, for the 1994 Olympics when I was a little kid and then with two Ford Sayre trips. But to ski the trails before that race exponentially altered my understanding of our sport even above having been a spectator at the Holmenkollen in 2003 and 2006. Two laps of the loop used for that 50 k are no joke on the legs, but the adrenaline of all the half-drunk and fully-drunk fans screaming for me as if I was an athlete and the race had already started, rather than being two hours away, pushed me harder and harder, barely noticing the lactate building up.

This time, as I skied up the huge climbs of the Holmenkollen race trail loop and headed for the marka, they were quiet. I found myself crying. For seven years I had been going to World Cup races, and this pre-work ski was an integral part of my ritual. We don’t do this job for the money, and the chance to get out on ski trails in new and special places is always one of the best parts of a trip for me.

Oslo hadn’t been a new place in a while, but it will always be one of the most special places.

When would I next ski on these amazing trails, with all their lore and all of my own memories of famous battles which unfolded there?

When next would I be able to turn to the right as I climbed, and look out over the city and its fjord?

I kept thinking: this the the last time I’ll ever go for a ski before a race like this. I’ve done this so many times, and this is it. Not only it for skiing before the Holmenkollen races, but who knows when I’ll next be in Oslo, period.

The fact that it was such a perfect day didn’t help make that any easier to take.

Nor did the fact that when I got back to the stadium, I would be covering the last World Cup race ever for Lowell Bailey and Tim Burke of the United States, and Julia Ransom of Canada. The retirement parties planned somehow made my own upcoming life changes come even more to the fore.

But, of course, that is being melodramatic and overblown. Oslo isn’t going anywhere. Probably I won’t be back there reporting for FasterSkier. But that’s not to say that I can’t go back, during the World Cup or any other time. I have my whole life ahead of me. In theory, I will have a job and some income. (Ha!! That’s delusional!! I’m a scientist!!) I can come back whenever I want, if the pull is so strong. It’s not my last time on these trails.

I kept repeating this to myself and by the time I peeled off of the cross-country race loop and headed into the marka, the tears had stopped.

On the slightly-less-manicured trails, I passed dozens, probably hundreds, of skiers. Some in trendy Scandinavian ski clothes. Others retirees, on old skis, moving slowly. Families with kids, with the parents carrying backpacks for a picnic later. Guys pulling babies and toddlers behind them in pulks. People my age who weren’t out there because they were great skiers, but because it was a beautiful day, skiing around in old sweaters and knit headbands. Women of all ages, some wearing lipstick, several with dogs bounding beside them or ahead of them or, in the case of one lady with a dachshund, trailing behind her working very hard but utterly unable to keep up on his stubby little legs.

The whole world was out skiing because, in the end, it was a perfect day. And I was out with them.

I didn’t forget that in a way this was the end of everything, but the acute grief faded. I enjoyed the ski without thinking constantly about what it meant. I basked.

I skied the longest loop I could manage until it was almost time for the races, then snuck back into the stadium past some course marshals who just nodded instead of checking my credential. I took off my skis and stood for a moment, looking first at the ski jump just across the bowl, then at the grandstands full of fans. The television cameras were panning back and forth. The commentators in their little booths were already commentating. The stadium announcer was pumping up the crowd. A few athletes were starting to do pickups, speeds, or threshold work as they skied out of the stadium, the final pieces of their pre-race warmups. Photographers were starting to filter out onto the trails and their special priority positions hauling their gigantic zoom lenses, bigger than my head.

I took several deep breaths. I smiled.

I told myself, this will still be here.

And I went into the media center to change into dry clothes, grab something to eat, and then get out there and do some reporting.

 

*Oslo was last World Cup of the season that wasn’t in Russia, which is currently not in compliance with the WADA Code. A number of teams and athletes skipped the Russia finals.

Seiser Alm and perfect ski vacations.

I’m seriously late with this trip report, but no matter. I want to tell you about a trip I took back in early February.

Earlier this winter, when I realized that I was not going to the Olympics and thus had more time to play with in Europe (ha! only kind of! I need to finish my dissertation!), I asked on Facebook: what were my friends’ favorite places to cross-country ski in Europe? Places that I shouldn’t leave next fall without having visited?

Yes, I am in that mode. I anticipate defending my PhD in September, which means that I am looking for postdoc positions and in all likelihood I’ll be headed back to North America. It’s not that I’ll never take another ski trip in Europe, of course, but doing so will be a lot harder once I’m based on a different continent. There is such a world to explore here, and I’ve had so many great trips and experiences – many of which you can read about on this blog, like this, this, or this – but there are so many places that I still want to go, and not enough time to visit them.

So I wanted some help narrowing down my list.

A suggestion from multiple people was Seiser Alm (or Alpe di Siusi) in Italy. I had known for a while that this would be a nice place to go, as evidenced by the fact that oh so many national ski teams do training camps there: it is a favorite of the Americans, the Canadians, the Swedes, the Norwegians, and the Finns, among others. Marit Bjørgen and Charlotte Kalla each decided to ditch their teams’ pre-Olympic training camps and train in Seiser Alm instead. (And that turned out to work out well for both of them, as each came home with individual gold medals.)

Seiser Alm isn’t all that hard to get to, if you’re coming from afar. Go to Milan, take a train to Bolzano, and then it’s a quick bus ride to Seis/Siusi, the town below the plateau. You can stay there and take the cablecar or bus up to the plateau of Seiser Alm/Alpe di Siusi every day to ski, or you can travel up the big hill and stay up there, for example in the village of Compatsch, as we did.

Pro tip, do some work on the train.

The reason I hadn’t been to Seiser Alm so far, however, is that if you are coming from the north it is not so convenient. With a car, it’s probably not that bad. I don’t have a car, however, so the trip was a long combination of train and bus connections. Crossing the Alps is never a simple feat and I took the train into Austria, then another train to the top of a pass, then a another train down the other side of the pass into Italy, then a bus from Brixen/Bressanone to Seis/Siusi*, then the cablecar. I had wanted to take this trip before, but the logistics put me off. From Zurich it’s literally as fast to fly to Oslo and then take a train to Lillehammer, as it is to take public transportation to Seiser Alm!

I’m bad at writing blog posts, because my introductions are always longer than the meat of the post. But here, I’ll finally get to the point: I took a few days off work and made it a long weekend, reserved a hotel, and traveled to Seiser Alm. I went with my boyfriend, who had never cross-country skied before. I was hoping he wouldn’t hate it, and figured that if I wanted him to love my sport, I might as well introduce him to it in the awesomest place I could think of.

Because of all those logistics, we arrived in the mid afternoon. After checking in I immediately wanted to go for a ski before the sun went down, so I grabbed my skate skis and headed out. It had snowed the day before and the grooming was imperfect for skating (classic would have been better, but I didn’t want to take the time to pick and apply kickwax, I just wanted to get out there).

But it was beautiful. Everything I had dreamed of. And I had plenty of time to appreciate the scenery, because skating through the powder up some big climbs at 1800 meters of elevation (around 6,000 feet, and higher once I went up some of those big climbs) is really hard. I just skied until the sun was setting, maybe an hour and a half, but I was already pooped.

Luckily, I could refuel. Our hotel was delightful. As is probably the case for most or all of the hotels in Compatsch, half-board is the default: breakfast and dinner are included in the room rate. That’s because Compatsch is a tiny, tiny village at the top of the cablecar. There are a handful of hotels, some of them fairly big, but maybe only two or three bars/pizza places that aren’t associated with hotels. There’s just not many other places you are going to eat, and the hotels aren’t really going to get dinner guests who aren’t staying up there because the cablecar stops running at 6 p.m. and you aren’t allowed to drive up to the plateau unless you are staying there (which makes the plateau very nice and quiet!). So, half-board makes sense for everyone.

The dinner was superb, including a great salad bar, some handmade pasta (of course), and a *dessert buffet*. I generally try not to eat dessert, but this was too much to resist. When I saw the 70-something-year-old German guy from Hamburg who was sitting at the table next to us get up and choose a second dessert, I decided that’s what I should do too.

Yes, even if you don’t count the phenomenal skiing, I was spoiled on this trip.

The next day we enjoyed a similarly great breakfast, and then set out to ski. That first afternoon I had remembered how exhausting it is to skate at altitude. I haven’t been doing a lot of skating this year because I’m still recovering from an ankle injury that has really affected my mechanics, so I had somehow forgotten that fact.

So we stuck to classic skiing. After the moody weather of our arrival day, it dawned bright and sunny. I slapped some blue hardwax on my skis, we rented some skis for my boyfriend, and set out.

Same view, this time with A+ grooming.

I can hardly explain how spectacular it was. I tried to be a good teacher but was distracted by the scenery, the perfect conditions, the feeling of sun on my skin (we hadn’t been getting a lot of that in Zurich). Every few minutes I would look around and grin, and sometimes spread my arms like, can you believe this?

From Compatsch, it is a few kilometers up to Ritsch, which is the true center of the trail system. From there, there’s a few kilometers of easy, rolling trails (and actually even a one-kilometer “practice loop” which is totally flat). We started there, but continued around the 12-km “Hartl” loop that goes far out the plateau to the northeast, and at its farthest point loops around alpine meadows with overlooks across a valley into Val Gardena.

I live in Switzerland, so I’m used to mountains, but the mountains in the Dolomites are totally different. They are made of, well, dolomite, and they are sharp and craggy. I think this is one thing that made me so awed by the scenery: it was just so different than what I was used to seeing. Take my wonder at the Swiss Alps, that feeling I have in Lenzerheide or Gantrisch or even Einsiedeln, and increase it by an order of magnitude, because these mountains are simply not what I usually look at. And throughout the day, the sun plays across them. Different parts are lit up or shaded. Clouds and snow squalls play around the spires. Every time you look is a little different.

My boyfriend survived the loop and we stopped in Ritsch for lunch at the hotel/restaurant there, devouring some excellent local-style dumplings. One was made with cheese, another spinach, a third one beets.

After replenishing, we parted ways and I skied down into Saltria and cruised around the 6 k loop there. Now is a good time to explain Seiser Alm. It is really just a huge alpine plateau, with hills and meadows, and sharp mountains on several sides. On every edge of this plateau are ski lifts and tiny resorts with a one or two hotels each; many of these areas are accessible from one another, albeit not by steep ski runs. Sometimes the cross-country ski trail would be running parallel to an alpine run, on a gradual downhill across the plateau. Even just in a tuck, on my cross-country skis I would be going faster than the downhill skiers on their heavy equipment, who couldn’t get up a head of momentum on such a gradual hill.

Saltria is another medium-sized village, a bit like Compatsch, but nestled down in a mini-valley a bit instead of totally perched on a plateau. To get down to Saltria, I dropped almost 200 meters of elevation in about two twisty kilometers, which was a lot of fun. I then cruised around the medium loop there, which was comparatively deserted and quite lovely, going up this mini-valley along a babbling river/stream instead of offering the bam-bam-bam of the plateau’s mountain views. And then I had to climb back up those 200 meters in two kilometers, which was slightly less fun.

Again, I was exhausted. But as I waited hungrily for dinner time, I appreciated the view, again. Perhaps some of the most special views of the spiky mountains are in the morning and the evening. As the light gradually disappeared, the spires were framed in different colors, just there right outside our window. The beauty and the quiet are so striking. Unless you have a really good reason to do a budget trip, it’s worth spending a little bit more money to stay up on the plateau and experience the mountains through whole days and nights instead of just enjoying the views from your skis during the day.

We had another great dinner, after which we sat in the hotel’s lounge area with a couple of beers. We were joined by two German couples, and the two men in the group began playing music on a guitar and singing. They were great, and played songs from several cultures and in several languages. The experience of this type of hotel, where everyone sticks around for meals, is a very different atmosphere from the impersonal settings of bigger resorts, and it was a lot of fun.

The next day was again beautiful and sunny, and we skied the “Panorama” loop, in total about a 20 km round trip from Compatsch, with a huge elevation gain.

Suddenly you find yourself skiing past the top of a ski lift, an experience you rarely get in the U.S. or Canada! The way that nordic and alpine skiing are integrated into the same space in Seiser Alm (and a few other places I have been, like Font Romeu in the French Pyrenees) is really neat. Groomed winter hiking/snowshoe trails are also embedded into this matrix, so up on the plateau at nearly any point you can look around and see people doing three or four different kinds of recreation. I wish more resorts would do this, instead of making these all totally separate activities, each with their own “area”. It’s great to be able to use the same space, and simply provides more terrain for everyone – why is that not a win/win!?

The panorama loop indeed offers spectacular panoramas. Again I was on blue hardwax, cruising around perfect classic tracks. I just couldn’t believe how lucky I was. Perhaps because we set out directly after breakfast, we encountered relatively few other skiers, particularly in the outer parts of the loop.

The loop was so great that I went back the next day, when I skied as much as I could – the Panorama loop, the other loop overlooking Val Gardena – before reluctantly putting my skis back in their bag, getting on the cablecar, and starting the long journey home to Zurich. I had skied about 30 km each day, on average, and I was satisfied, exhausted, sore – but wished I could have just stayed and kept skiing.

I know exactly why so many people, from the world’s best skiers to that old guy from Hamburg who told us that he comes to Seiser Alm for two weeks every year, want to go there. I can’t wait to go back, even though it might be five or ten or twenty years before I have another chance.

Not only the snow, but that handmade pasta and an excellent glass of wine are waiting for me when I do.

*Why does everything have two names? Südtirol is an interesting region with an interesting history. It’s currently an “autonomous province” of Italy, but more than half the people living there speak German as their first language. Here’s a link to the Wikipedia explanation of the region’s history, and a link to a 1927 article in Foreign Affairs stating that “the German South-Tyrol and its people are purely German. Never in history has the Brenner been the frontier of Italy… Italy nevertheless has an international obligation with regard to the rights of the German population of South-Tyrol.” That article is obviously not completely unbiased, but it’s quite interesting to read.

A Missive From 3+ Years Covering the Russian Doping Scandal

FasterSkier’s Alex Kochon, Nat Herz, and the author (Chelsea Little) at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Little did we know what was going on behind the scenes of those Games. Looking back at our coverage of the 2014 Olympics, I’m very proud of the work we did. But I’m not too proud to say that while we thought we had a realistic understanding of international sports governance, we were still naive to its incredible inertia.

The following is an editorial I wrote for FasterSkier.com. As always, head there for more news and reporting about cross-country skiing and biathlon.

***

Last week, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared 28 Russian athletes of doping charges. Many people seemed shocked by this development.

The athletes had been disqualified from the 2014 Games by an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Commission. This was after more than 18 months of buildup in which the world learnt of systematic manipulation of the anti-doping process by the Russian state security apparatus at those Olympics.

I was both shocked, and not shocked. When all these athletes had been disqualified by the IOC and handed lifetime bans from Olympic competition, I knew in my heart of hearts that it would be undone (I’ll explain why below). But I hadn’t, somehow, put any thought into how exactly that would come to pass. So on one level, I was surprised, even if on another level I wasn’t.

When the news broke, I had written a profanity-laced all-caps message on our company Slack channel. On Twitter, I wrote, “I am so tired. That means that they have won.” That’s about all I could muster.

“I’m sure you are extremely disappointed by the CAS ruling,” one member of my extended family wrote in an email, knowing how many nights and weekends I had spent covering this story, how many hours and days of my personal life I had erased to chase it, because doing so does not pay the bills if you work for a cross-country ski website in America.

And I was disappointed.

I had thought that those nights and weekends would help make a better sporting world, help bring cheating to light, help hold the powers that be in sport accountable and call on them to do a little better.

But it felt like all that work had accomplished nothing, not changed a single thing to make nordic sports more fair.

I can only imagine how the athletes felt. The ones who found out that they would not be receiving medals after all, medals that they felt had been stolen from them by cheaters, medals that they had been slated to finally receive but now would never see.

I can only imagine.

More than anything, I was disappointed because I didn’t understand. I’m an analyst. No analysis I could do would explain to me just what had happened because CAS did not release a reasoned argument for their decision, which, as USADA General Cousel Bill Bock pointed out, is ludicrous. So at the moment we don’t know why these athletes were cleared; we only have speculation and hearsay.

But I had read previous CAS decisions, including the one partially upholding cross-country skier Alexander Legkov’s provisional suspension by the International Ski Federation.

In that decision, an arbitration panel wrote that they trusted the statements of whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov and investigator Richard McLaren.

That testimony that is widely speculated to have been found untrustworthy by the arbitration panel which more recently cleared the athletes.

There is a difference between provisional suspensions and rule violations, and maybe that’s the root cause (or maybe it’s not; one day we will find out).

But if two different arbitration panels can come to two completely different conclusions about whether evidence is trustworthy, then what is the point of a “high court” of arbitration? That’s disappointing.

On the other hand, maybe the new panel did believe that the whistleblower testimony was true, but that witness statements alone are not enough to prove a doping violation. We’ll set aside for a moment all the forensic evidence [see footnote 1].

If that’s the case, it’s even more disappointing. It means that all of the rhetoric over the last few years about putting more resources into investigations will not actually result in cleaner sport, unless there is a positive test or the presence of drugs or medical equipment (see: Austrian skier Wurm, Russian skier Pankratov).

It would mean that the World Anti-Doping Agency’s new “secure digital platform” for whistleblowing — and statements by athletes and doctors and team staff — are all useless to anti-doping unless they are followed by physical evidence of prohibited substances or methods.

But we don’t know the panel’s reasoning. This is all just speculation.

I was tired and disappointed because my job as a journalist is to take complicated things, and make them make sense to our readers.

Here, there was nothing to work with. There was nothing to explain.

Or was there?

Here’s my analysis.

Armchair commentators have said that someone at CAS must have been paid off. Olympic observers have noted that while Russia appealed the choice or arbitrators by the IOC, the IOC apparently did not appeal Russia’s choice. So maybe the panel really was biased. That’s one storyline.

A second suggested storyline is that the IOC set up the cases to fail, so that it would look like they tried to do something heroic, but in the end nothing would change.

To some extent, that is absolutely the case. Lifetime bans for doping have been attempted by the IOC before. Every time, they have been overturned. There was a zero percent chance it would work this time, either.

Did the IOC go further than that in “set up to fail”? Both storylines may be true. Neither may be true. But each of these storylines is far too myopic in their attempts to explain what happened with this CAS decision.

The reason that, in my heart of hearts, I knew that things would turn out just fine for most of these seemingly disqualified athletes, is that far more than CAS is broken [2].

Broken would imply that at some point the system worked. When was that, again?

This scandal has been going on for years. And in both it and other, non-Russia-related doping scandals, organizations have dragged their feet at every turn. There is no political will to keep sport clean. Ensuring clean sport would be hard. Nobody wants to do hard work. Universally, these organizations just want to run sporting events and for fans to be happy.

“We need to stop pretending sport is clean,” International Ski Federation (FIS) President Gian Franco Kasper [3] famously told New York Times reporter Rebecca Ruiz. “It’s a noble principle, but in practice? It’s entertainment. It’s drama.”

People were mad when Kasper said this, but it was an especially revealing comment. Maybe it is a testament to our optimism that we quickly moved on, focusing on how we would try to “solve” the problem of doping.

There have been individuals and groups who have worked passionately to uncover the truth, and done an admirable job. Beckie Scott at WADA [4] is one who comes to mind. But their work is always prevented from reaching its logical conclusion.

Let’s first look at the IOC, which has deservedly gotten a bad rap for dragging its investigations out for as long as seems humanly possible.

The IOC has certainly not put the resources or good-faith effort into looking under every stone, or doing so quickly. That’s how we got the first Sochi disqualifications – like Legkov’s – being announced in November of 2017. Most of the criticism leveled at the organization on this front is absolutely justified.

In all the time between May 2016, when the Sochi scandal was first broken by the New York Times, and November 2017, the IOC did very little. The decision banning Legkov relied mostly on the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report.

The IOC Commission asked new experts to revisit the issues of scratches on sample bottles and salt content of urine samples. Basically, they repeated a lot of work which had already been done, expanding it to a larger number of samples but taking longer to do so by insisting on using different experts, who nonetheless came to the same conclusions.

For Legkov, all of this resulted in the same evidence that had been in the McLaren Report: that Legkov’s sample bottle from after the 50 k, which he had won, showed signs of being tampered with.

Sure, the IOC Commission got testimony from Rodchenkov. But that only at the last minute, perhaps because they were publicly shamed when it was revealed that they hadn’t contacted him.

It’s fair to criticize the IOC for its anemic investigation, but this is not just an IOC problem, just like the disqualifications being overturned is not really a CAS problem.

Look further. Since the McLaren Report, few other governing bodies have been doing better.

78 anti-doping samples belonging to biathletes are referred to in the McLaren Report. The International Biathlon Union (IBU) has not suspended any of the 38 athletes, that we are aware of, other than those who were suspended by the IOC. In fact, they have explicitly said that they would not investigate 22 of those 38.

“We like to play coy, like the cat wagging its tail when the mouse runs in front,” IBU Vice President for Medical Issues Jim Carrabre told me back at the 2014 Olympics, in an interview that led to the IBU’s media chief calling me into his office at the press center and dressing me down for talking about things that he would rather journalists didn’t ask his organization’s board members.

“It goes by once or twice, and then the third time it gets bitten,” Carrabre said at the time.

He was referring to blood profiles, a topic that has recently gained prominence.

For years I have been told by various people that the IBU has cases in the works, that soon I will hear about them, that they know some people are doping and are about to catch them.

I don’t doubt that Carrabre is a true believer in the anti-doping fight. He gets pretty fired up about things, as does fellow Executive Board member Max Cobb.

But the cases that I heard rumors of, even promises of, have never materialized.

The Athlete Biological Passport (ABP) was supposed to revolutionize anti-doping and indicate if athletes had been blood doping even when no illicit substance was detected. That sure would have been handy due to the drugs’ short detection windows and athletes’ and doctors’ strategies of “microdosing.”

But there have been no doping bans on the basis of ABP in skiing or biathlon [5]. I don’t think that even the most optimistic of fans really believes that this is because there is no blood doping going on.

What does that mean? That ABP doesn’t work, that it wouldn’t hold up in arbitration? Or that something else is going on?

It would be hard to look at IBU President Anders Besseberg’s behavior in the last two years – for instance, the IBU’s continued insistence that it’s totally fine to hold events in Russia, or his demeanor and statements during meetings with athletes – and conclude anything other than that he is sympathetic to Russia and would even more generally like to simply pretend that there was no scandal in his sport.

Having a few true anti-doping crusaders on a governing board does not clean sport make. I don’t want to put words into their mouths, but probably, it just makes these crusaders even more frustrated.

“When the McLaren Report first came out, I thought that doping was the greatest threat to our sport,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee told FasterSkier in January 2017. “However after watching the last few weeks play out, I believe that the IBU’s reluctance to meaningfully act to prevent doping is the greatest threat to our sport.”

Then there is FIS. As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, there were 46 skiers implicated in the McLaren report. Not all of them, obviously, were at the 2014 Olympics or Paralympics, yet as far as anyone can tell, FIS has done nothing to investigate the other cases, some of which include alleged anti-doping rule violations.

A FIS whistleblower just leaked a bunch of old blood profile data to an international team of journalists.

(Which, by the way, how can I get in on that? Hi? I’m over here! I know a lot about doping in skiing and I also how to do statistics!)

The data is interesting, but nothing can really be done with it, as it is old and from the days before ABP was a policy. Without the journalists or their experts explaining how they decided what an “abnormal or highly abnormal” blood profile is, it’s impossible to judge what percentage of the athletes they identify as potentially having doped actually were likely dopers.

But perhaps this indicates that someone within FIS is frustrated with how things are going. If you cared about skiing being clean, cared about doing your job well, and listened to Kasper say things like “sanctioning entire countries is purely political and I do not agree with this,” you might be frustrated too.

And here’s the last thing. In this whole scandal we are talking about one country. That’s Russia, and it has led to a lot of ideological discussion.

But it’s not really about Russia.

Yes, the IOC and the IBU and FIS want to keep Russia happy, because their sports are popular in Russia, the Russian athletes are talented and popular even outside the country, because Russia is great at hosting events, and because Russian fans travel all over to watch competitions. That’s part of it.

And yes, some commentators have complained that athletes are being punished just because they are Russian. They have complained that this is a U.S.-led effort reviving Cold War hostilities. That we are Russophobes. That we are hypocrites because American sports stars dope too, and/or that lots of countries dope but we just haven’t found out about it.

But again, that’s being far too myopic about things, and believing that this scandal is only a thing unto itself, not part of the bigger problem.

If this scandal had taken place with Norway, Sweden, Germany, the United States, or any other country at the center – the outcome or the (lack of) speed of its resolution probably wouldn’t have been much different [6].

I – yes, I’m among those journalists accused of being hypocritical and anti-Russian, I’ve even been compared to Nazis, gee that was fun – I would chase this scandal just as hard if it had arisen in any of these other countries.

In fact, I would have investigated it with even more fervor if these were American or Canadian skiers and biathletes we were talking about. And presumably most of the evidence would have been in English, so I could investigate more effectively, without translating things I was looking for into Russian, searching the internet or evidence documents, and then translating the Russian back into English, in a crappy game of “telephone”.

I think that the North American athletes I routinely interview are aware that if I found out they were cheating, I would have no remorse and they would have nowhere to hide.

Just as I’m not a hypocrite, these sports organizations aren’t, either – well, they are, but not in this way, not when it comes to nationality. The claims that various decisions just come from Russian money and bribes are missing the point.

Whether coming from Russia or elsewere, these organizations don’t want a big scandal. They don’t want to rewrite their results sheets. The athletes who missed out on medals they probably should have taken home? These organizations don’t really care about athletes.

They are just an unfortunate bit of collateral damage, but oh well.

Time will march on. A new race will be held. It will be an exciting race! We will all be caught up in it.

Maybe Pellegrino will upset Klæbo.

Maybe an American will finally win a medal.

Maybe Fourcade will mess up his first stage, but then climb back to gold anyway.

Maybe Makarainen will mess up all her shooting stages, and we will all watch rapt to see whether she can pass 15 people on the final loop. Maybe she can.

Maybe Harvey will finally truly become the Prince of Quebec, crowned with an Olympic medal.

Maybe the breakaway will succeed.

Or maybe the favorite will win, but we will be enthralled until the final moment, watching to see whether they will pull it off.

Soon, we will forget about those athletes whom we were wondering about, the ones who maybe probably should have a medal stashed in their safe deposit box somewhere and a whole lot more sponsor money than they have now.

Those athletes will slip farther and farther to the back of our minds. In the forefront will be the day’s competition – so amazing! – and the big happy family that is sport.

Actual clean sport is not, and never was, these organizations’ goal.

*****

Footnotes:

[1] On the topic of skiers who were cleared by CAS: Maxim Vylegzhanin’s sample from Sochi also had scratches on it and had an incorrectly reported specific gravity; the two other members of the men’s relay team also had marks on their sample bottles, and one had a sample whose specific gravity was too high to be believable; two sprinters had marks on their sample bottles and for one, there as also a foreign fiber inside the bottle. Julia Ivanova, whose ban was not overturned by CAS, had an impossibly high salt value in her urine sample.

[2] I actually think CAS does work. CAS handles far more than doping cases – they handle contract disputes, team selection, trades, anything you can think of that would need arbitration. And as far as I know, they do a good job. This is the first CAS decision that has left me truly baffled.

[3] Term limits, man. We really, really need term limits.

[4] I’m not going to talk in much detail in this piece about WADA, which alternatingly does the right thing and the wrong thing, and often does the wrong thing for a very long time first. But at least in the last year or so, WADA is no worse than any other group, and indeed maybe a bit better.

[5] Blood profiles have certainly led to targeted testing, which caught athletes before the 2014 Olympics. But nobody bothered to try an ABP case, that we know of. Nor, seemingly, did the biathletes that the McLaren Report alleges were doping – Olga Vilukhina and Yana Romanova – fail their ABP’s. Either ABP is not being used, or it is not being successful and the details of the cases are never made public.

[6] If the perpetrator of this scandal hadn’t been Russia, I think the main difference might have been the reaction within that different country. I don’t think the Norwegian public would react the same way the Russian public has. Each place has its own culture around sport and what it means, and government also plays various different roles in supporting and controlling sport. But the reaction from the international organizations? Things would probably be much the same.

I Met My Book-Based 2017 New Years Resolution!

Last year, I made a resolution to try to read more. I did it because I really love reading, but I realized that I wasn’t doing so much of it outside of work. I wanted my New Years resolution not to be something that was a responsibility or a chore, but something that would increase the time I spent doing something that I liked. Something that would improve my quality of life and bring me some happiness. So: I resolved to read 52 books. One a week.

And, dear reader, I did it! This might be the first time that I can say I hands-down nailed a resolution and kept it going all year long. I read 20,300 pages in print, aside from papers read for work or things read online (which is a lot; after all, one of the reasons for this resolution was to spend less time staring at a screen, but I still have a lot of screen time!).

Here’s what I read, with some notes below about

  1. my favorites,
  2. how I chose them,
  3. who the authors were
  4. and why my resolution this year will be to read even more diverse authors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I also read an issue of Brick, the Canadian literary magazine, but this output is captured from Goodreads and I can’t find Brick on there.)

A Few Favorites (although nothing in here was bad):

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys: This book seemed life changing. I put it down and thought about the world differently. It is an inherently feminist book, and I also reveled in the different characters’ descriptions of nature. Why is this not required reading right after high school students read Jane Eyre!? I feel strongly about that, but I also think that if you had never even heard of Jane Eyre and picked up this book, it would be revelatory. Obviously, it stands on its own. I wanted to read the whole thing all over again, immediately. I think there was some aspect in which it was the right book at the right time, too, but I can’t exactly put my finger on how. (Link to buy at Powells)

The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides: A gem; there’s a reason Eugenides became a big-name author. (Link to buy at Powells)

Evicted, Matthew Desmond: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is so important to understanding how things work in America and the structural inequalities our population faces. It is also simply a dang good read, with compelling characters and stories amidst the facts and statistics. An amazing book. (Link to buy at Powells)

Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: I know some people have issues with this book because they think it glorifies working too hard and some behaviors that are, well, not the best way to supervise students. However, I think it is clear that the author is writing about mental health issues that she suffered for a large chunk of the time covered in the book – certainly not saying that how she worked in the early part of her career is healthy, or that it is the way everyone should work. I also found it to be a great description of doing science, and the magical opportunities but also complete failures that you bounce around in from month to month. Plus the naturalistic and biological descriptions used as metaphors are so sparklingly beautifully written and crafted. I love this book. (Link to buy at Powells)

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears: Rarely have so many completely unreliable narrators combined to tell such a great story. All the political, historical, scientific, and religious details are fantastic, and for me it was an intriguing reminder that a few hundred years ago we considered philosophy, medicine, biology, and physics to basically all be part of the same field. Plus, it’s a great mystery! (Link to buy at Powells)

How To Be BothAli Smith: I didn’t know what to expect from this book, and I’m still not sure what it really even is, but every part of it is delightful and thought-provoking, with fascinating characters. Their inner thoughts and dialogue are so fresh and new. (Link to buy at Powells)

Best Gift From a Stranger:

The Moonstone, Wilkie Collins: I did one of those pyramid-scheme type things, only with books. You receive an email with two names, move the names around and add yours, and send it on to friends. A few days or weeks later, you receive books in the mail as friends of your friends send you a book that they liked. It was great fun and I ended up reading several things I never would have otherwise. This was one of them, a classic and among the first great detective novels (and I love detective novels!), and it was one of the best things I read all year. The fact that I received it in this unusual way made it all the more fun. (Link to buy at Powells)

Most Frustrating Read: 

The Sport of KingsC. E. Morgan: 4/5 of this book was one of the best books I read all year, an absolutely incredible accomplishment of storytelling. I was amazed at every page. The next 9/10 was… less good. The 10th 10th was disappointing, I thought. (If you’ve read the book I’d be fascinated to know your reaction.) But I wouldn’t say that this disappointment makes it not worth picking up a copy. It’s still special, and I can’t wait to see what the author does next. (Link to buy at Powells)

Weirdest Read: 

Norma, Sofi Oksanen: If I tell you the plot of this book, you will not even believe that someone would come up with it, much less that it would have a fairly successful launch. I’ll just say that it’s set in Finland, it’s super strange, and involves both organized crime and some sort of genetic magic? I picked this novel up after reading the author’s piece on LitHub, “How Women Experience Beauty”. It’s a fast and fun read, if you’re up for something weird. (Link to buy at Amazon)

Only Thing I Was Reading for the Second Time:

Middlemarch, George Eliot: I rarely re-read books. But I got this for a friend who I then didn’t see for a while, so I decided to read it myself first before gifting it. It was just as good as I remembered. A favorite from the Classic English Novels canon. If you haven’t read it, do; if you start it and hate it, keep going. Both the book and Dorothea get more interesting. (Link to buy at Powells)

How I Chose What To Read

As the year progressed, I kept track of what I read, when I finished it, etc. I got this idea from a blog post I read somewhere but… I can no longer remember where. The spreadsheet I used was adapted from Nicole Zhu. So I can say:

  • 13 books were received as gifts from various people (mostly my parents, but also friends), plus The Moonstone  which was received in the book exchange (most of the other book exchange books I had read the previous year).
  • One book (The Haywire Heart) was sent to me by a publisher asking for a review.
  • A few I chose because they were classics (East of Eden) or at least, classics for a particular crowd  (The Selling of the President, Wide Sargasso Sea, Desert Solitaire), which I had never read.
  • Some I picked up off my parents’ bookshelf when I was home (The Painted Drum, East of Eden, Cod).
  • Others were recommended to be by friends (Burmese Days, Where the Rivers Flow North, Outlander, Solar Bones).
  • One I picked up from a bookshelf at Powells which highlighted their selection of women authors in translation (Adua).
  • Some I picked because I loved previous works from the authors (The Unconsoled, The Buried Giant, The Dispossessed).
  • And most of the rest I chose because they were award winners, I had read reviews of them, or they were parts of various lists that I saw.

I read a lot of books that were either gifts or recommended to me by friends. They were mostly excellent. I found Thank You For Being Late a bit long – there were sections that I found really interesting and inspiring, and long sections which seemed tedious. Solar Bones I did not find as magical as some other people did, but, again, there were entire sections which were amazing – and as a feat of writing it is stylistically a marvel. If you can’t think of what to read, definitely ask friends for recommendations. You’ll get out of your rut and find some amazing stuff.

Of the work-related books, four were chosen myself and three were chosen for me, either as part of our research group’s book club or because one was a “gift” of my boss (probably a signal I should read it…).

Who Wrote These Books? 

In my spreadsheet, I kept track of some basic data about the books and authors I was reading. I was going to make some nice R ggplot graphics of this data, but I’m just way too tired. So I’ll describe the data verbally instead.

Of the seven work-related books, all the authors were white men. Sigh.

Leaving out those as well as the two literary journal issues (which featured writing by men and women, and of various nationalities), I read three short-story collections, 29 novels, and 13 nonfiction books.

29 books were published since the year 2000, with BY FAR the biggest year being 2016 (11 books). I’m ready new writing, for the most part. The earliest books were The Moonstone (1868) and Middlemarch (1871), with a big jump until Burmese Days (1934) and then East of Eden (1952).

25 books were by men, and 19 by women. The disparity really comes on the nonfiction side: with novels and short stories combined, 16 books were by men and 15 by women. For nonfiction, nine books were by men and four by women.

11 books were by non-white authors – and interestingly, it was 5 by men (20% of the total number of male authors) and 6 by women (32% of the female authors).

28 authors were American, of which at least two were born outside the country (Viet Thanh Nguyen in Vietnam and Yaa Gyasi in Ghana). 7 authors were British, of which at least two were born out of the country (Jean Rhys in Dominica and Kazuo Ishiguro in Japan). The other authors are one each from Finland, India, Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, North Korea, and South Korea, and Ideaga Scebo is Somali-Italian. Most of the works take place completely or partly in the country of the author’s origin.

4 books were translations: Adua (from Italian), Norma (from Finnish), The Vegetarian (from Korean), and The Accusationhow the translation process helped verify that it is an authentic North Korean work (from Korean, and you should read about ).

Next Thoughts…

I found this year of reading so rewarding! A few close friends almost made fun of me for how voraciously I was reading, but I learned so much, and learned to think about things in a different way, even if sometimes only temporarily. I also fairly frequently read on the bus or tram to work, which is a big improvement over reading about politics on Twitter and getting mad. I read a lot of fiction, and I read a fair amount of work that is set somewhere else, maybe in the future or the past, and some that involves magic. I do read some nonfiction to learn, but a huge aspect of my current love of reading is to be transported somewhere away from work and my daily life. And I think that spending more time in these other universes imagined by some fantastic writers has, indeed, improved my outlook on things and my balance.

More generally, this resolution reminded me how important it is to make space for things you love to do. Maybe that isn’t reading for you, but think of something that is and that you find yourself not doing as often as you used to or as you’d like to. Try to make a habit to carve out a little bit of space for it. We spend a lot of time doing things that just make us tired and frustrated and aren’t helping us out (hi, Twitter…). Eliminating those habits completely is not a realistic goal. But trying to replace them some portion of that time with a different thing that makes you happy is both realistic and more likely to succeed than simply resolving to NOT do something.

This year, I’m going to make more of an effort to read a better balance of male and female authors, and more books that aren’t by Americans. Although that’s hard, because there are so many good books by Americans. I’d also like to read more translated work. We’ll see how that goes.

Haute Savoie and the Best World Cup Yet?

Men’s mass start, Le Grand Bornand, 2017.

France has its own way about many things, and the Biathlon World Cup turns out to be one of them. The recent weekend of competitions in Le Grand Bornand was one of the most fun, atmospheric, and exciting events I’ve been to, although I’ve struggled to explain in words exactly what made it different.

“I could go for the greatest skiing right from the venue!” Yeah, but I also had amazing ski adventures in Norway, Austria, and Germany.

“The crowd was so huge, and so energetic!” Yeah, but see also, Ruhpolding and Holmenkollen, not to mention the Czech Republic for 2013 World Championships.

You begin to see the problem. It was different all right, but is there a word for how?

But whatever it was, which I will try nevertheless to articulate, it was amazing. Not only the races, but also everything else I did while there: the extra day I got to spend skiing up on a plateau, the ventures into a historic city nearby, the tartiflette I ate two days in a row in perfect happiness.

My usual reporting gig goes something like this: take a plane or train until I’m in the closest big city, take a train or bus until I’m in town, walk to wherever I’m staying or else beg for a transport from the organizing committee. Usually, walk. Sometimes far.

As the beginning of this World Cup weekend drew nearer, it became increasingly clear that this wasn’t going to work very well. The distance from Zurich to Le Grand Bornand is not too far, but the connections were terrible. There was a bus directly from Geneva to Le Grand Bornand, but as a ski-season bus it only began to run the week after the World Cup came to town (come on, guys!). An email to the organizing committee asking for a suggested alternative went unanswered. Sleuthing revealed that instead I would have to spend a long layover in Geneva, take a bus to Annecy, spend a long layover there, and take another bus to where I was staying.

Knowing that FasterSkier wouldn’t be able to reimburse me for it, I nonetheless rented a car. The weather forecast was terrible. I began to slightly dread the trip.

It was dark by the time I left Geneva on a Friday night, when everyone else is also trying to escape from the city to the mountains. Traffic was at a standstill on the highway. I eventually reached Annecy and turned up to the mountains, creeping along in a line of cars through the increasingly snowy roads. The mountains were hidden in snowsqualls and I had no sense of where I was going. With few named roadsigns, I drove past the place I was staying three times before actually finding it.

France, it must be said, is not always convenient or straightforward.

But when the World Cup was last held in Le Grand Bornand four years ago, everybody raved about it. And I had been told that La Clusaz, just on the other side of a ridge, was one of the best places in the world to go for a ski. Maybe when I woke up in the morning, I figured, I would see what all the fuss about Haute Savoie was really about.

The next morning, it was snowing – a lot. I had hoped to go for a ski nearby, but knew the trails wouldn’t have been groomed so early. Instead, I tried to get to the race venue to get my accreditation and snag a spot in the media center. The roads were terrible. I walked up to the main road and spotted a bus coming, clearly heading for the venue. Traffic slowed and as it happened, the bus idled to a stop just next to me. I put out my thumb to hitchhike. The bus was completely full, but the driver, an aging French man in an excellent beard and sweater, opened the door and folded down a sort of jump seat for me. I was in luck. We were off!

I was deposited in the old town of Le Grand Bornand near the beautiful church at its center. The mountains were still partially hidden, but provided a gorgeous backdrop. Even though it was three hours before the race, the town was already packed with spectators, dressed up patriotically and happily chatting, having a beer or hot mulled wine to get in the spirit.

After dropping off my laptop and snagging some cheese from the media cafeteria, I wandered around the venue, trying to figure out the stadium setup and how I would get between the shooting range, the finish line, and the mixed zone.

Spectators were filing in and music was blasting – good music, creating a party atmosphere. The French athletes had all made playlists and up on the big screens you would see, “you are listening to the playlist of Chloe Chevalier!”

This sounds silly, but playing good music goes so far in creating an atmosphere. And I’ve never particularly noticed or not noticed the music at races, but this time, I noticed it. The music was good, and it was fun, and it made everyone excited.

As race time drew near, the stands were already so loud. There were 15,000 or 16,000 people there, between the stands and the various hillsides out on the course. In the stadium, they were doing the wave. On the hillsides, fans were going crazy when a French athlete skied by. At one point, those filling the stands sang the Marseillaise. Someone had a trumpet they would play occasionally.

And then – race time. Off they went, and the crowd went even wilder. In they came to the shooting range, and the crowd cheered every hit target from a French athlete. They cheered for everyone else, too, although at two points they also cheered when other athletes (Johannes Bø and, I think, Anastasiya Kuzmina) missed shots, before seeming to remember that this was really rude and not doing it again.

The crowd cheered for everyone. In press conference after press conference, non-French athletes would say how the energy of the place helped them, how it was one of their favorite races, how crazy it was how the fanbase in France had grown in the last four years.

In the men’s mass start, Russia’s Matvey Eliseev ‘dirtied’ his first stage: he missed all five targets. That put him a minute and 15 seconds behind the next last competitor. When he reached the shooting range again, the crowd cheered him – the last place skier, and a Russian to boot – nearly as loudly as they had cheered Martin Fourcade. And when he went out on the course, the hillside cheered him up the climbs every bit as loudly.

That is something I don’t see (or hear) very often.

After a frustrating three days of racing for the French, they finally swept the mass starts. Both Justine Braisaz and Martin Fourcade carried the tricolore across the finish line. To say the crowd went wild is an understatement.

“This was tougher than some World Cups where we are less expected,” Fourcade later said of the pressure. “But it’s also what we want, asking for a World Cup at home.”

Biathlon wasn’t a big sport in France just five years ago, even though Fourcade was well on his winning ways. What happened? When asked what she would suggest a North American organizing committee do to try to mirror this success, Susan Dunklee said, “marketing.”

Whatever it was, it was magical. The crowd was big, but it wasn’t the biggest I’ve ever seen. Instead, something about their energy was completely different. It was French. It was more joyous than you would find at most other venues. The happiness at being outside, on a beautiful day in the mountains, watching an exciting sports event, was expressed totally differently than anywhere I’ve ever been.

But I didn’t work all weekend, and the other stuff was just as great as the competitions. Before Sunday’s race I had gone for a ski with fellow Dartmouth and Craftsbury alum Mary O’Connell, and Dartmouth alum Jenny Land Mackenzie. Because of all the security and closures around the race course, we had to walk maybe a kilometer up the road before finding a ski trail to hop on. Then we simply followed it up a long valley. It was a sunny morning. There were the mountains.

Mary and Jenny, rather excited at the good skiing we found ourselves having.

And there was all the snow! It has been so long since central Europe has had a good December. I was blown away at how good the skiing was. We saw Matthias Ahrens, the head coach of the Canadian team, out for a classic ski too.

“This is so amazing!” I said.

“Isn’t it!” he said.

We had a quiet Sunday evening, and I resolved to go to La Clusaz the next day. I’d been told it should be on my bucket list of places to ski and I was beyond excited. Jenny and Susan were considering alpine skiing, and I was torn: I knew going with them would be a blast, but I had wanted to cross-country ski La Clusaz for a long time and this was my one day of opportunity.

When we woke up in the morning, it was a blizzard. We couldn’t even see the hill across the valley. It was supposed to keep snowing all day. Downhill skiing was out of the question. We had a long and slow breakfast. I despaired: part of the La Clusaz experience of my dreams was the blue sky above and the mountain views all around. That clearly wasn’t going to happen.

But we had all day and nothing to do, so my companions pointed out that we should just drive up there and check it out. The drive was fairly harrowing, as the road got more and more snowy and greasy as we went. The rental car was steering like a large boat, climbing slowly, stopping slowly. Also, I had no idea where I was going or what the touring center even looked like, so I was afraid we would pass it without knowing.

That was no concern, as when we finally made it up, up, up to the plateau, the ski center was one of the last things on the road. It was still snowing, but we saw a groomer heading out. We were in luck!

I had only two pairs of skis with me, so I skated and Jenny classic skied, and Susan went for a walk. As we followed the groomer down a big hill to the Lac des Confins, we thought, now this is pretty good! The groomer stopped to work on a snowfarming project, though, and the skiing got a lot more difficult. We climbed to cross the road again and get onto the main trail system, where we spotted an uphill trail that seemed to have been groomed… not recently, but at least that morning.

Photos of La Clusaz taken later in the day, after lunch, when it was only snowing a little, rather than SO MUCH.

“Let’s go!” Jenny said. And off we went.

After maybe 200 meters, I was absolutely dying as I tried to skate up the big climb through the soft powder. It seemed like a death march. After what felt like forever, we had made it one kilometer. I regretted giving Jenny the classic skis. The trail was five kilometers up, and I wasn’t sure I would make it. But slowly but surely, we reached the top of the trail, where there was a picnic table. It seemed that we were on a small ridge and that there were taller mountains on every side, although we couldn’t really see them. On a sunny day, it would have been the ultimate spot to stop and have a snack. This wasn’t that day, but as the snow kept falling it was completely magical and quiet.

We were covered in snow, and wet, and I worried about how cold it would be descending the 5 k back to the touring center. But we covered the ground in literally just a few minutes, screaming at the hairpin corners, and eventually shooting out into the huge field back down on the plateau.

We tossed the skis in the car, and went inside to drink coffee and have lunch with Susan as the blizzard continued outside. The restaurant/café was cozy, the atmosphere warm and charming. I devoured more tartiflette (a dish of potatoes, bacon, and reblochon cheese, the local specialty), and gradually warmed up.

We spent the afternoon driving down to Annecy, wandering the Christmas markets and eating roasted chestnuts. We admired the old architecture, walked past a huge castle, wondered how the canal system worked. And then it was back to the chalet for another quiet night before we all flew back, separately, to the U.S. the next day.

Perhaps part of the reason this was such a happy trip for me was that it came at the end of the work year. I was embarking on two weeks of ‘vacation,’ or, at least, time away from the office. I was free of all the things I had said I would do before I left. That creates a certain jubilation.

But the amazing scenery and atmosphere, the ski trails and the cheese, all of that was pretty special and I think even if I had been in a bad mood it wouldn’t have lasted long.

I’ll conclude by saying what I heard so many people say during that weekend: “why doesn’t the World Cup come here more often!?”

Jenny and me, giddy!